One of the marks of a politician who changed the weather is the extent to which their legacy is still disputed, and their views argued over, many years after they left office. Apart from Margaret Thatcher, nowhere has this been more graphically true in recent years than for Tony Blair.
For a time, he transformed the fortunes of the Labour Party, and his record in office, especially his wars, remains controversial; what is becoming clear now though is how little he changed his party’s fundamental attitudes and culture. If the surge of support in the Labour leadership race for Jeremy Corbyn is anything to go by, Mr Blair might as well not have bothered.
Mr Blair, more blunt in semi-retirement than when he was leader, has gone so far as to say that he would prefer Labour not to win in 2020 than to have a Corbyn-led government. That may be a treacherous offence for an ex-PM; yet many voters in the centre ground will despair at the prospect of having to choose between an increasingly hard-faced Tory party dominated by George Osborne, and an impractical and economically dubious leftist agenda presented by Mr Corbyn. That would be good news for no one but Tim Farron: the Liberal Democrats traditionally do well when politics becomes polarised; the country prospers rather less.
Many in Labour, and outside, will recognise Mr Corbyn’s humane and generous-minded politics as an antidote to never-ending austerity and the ever-greater demands on the most vulnerable in society to pay the bills for a financial crisis that was not of their making. Many voters will also look around them at the growing inequalities in society and wonder why they do not have a mainstream political party – outside the SNP in Scotland – that is standing up for traditional social democratic values. Mr Corbyn is not some sort of latter-day Castro; he is a decent MP who works hard for his constituents and believes in what he says.
And yet he is not the answer to the Labour Party or the nation’s problems. Whatever merits some of his ideas possess – and he’d better watch out that the unfussy Mr Osborne doesn’t nick the better ones – the general approach was rejected roundly by the electorate only a few weeks ago, as well as in 2010 and, indeed, 1979, 1983, 1987 and 1992. The Labour Party, as Mr Blair and Gordon Brown strove so hard to prove, is nothing without a reputation for being able to manage taxpayers’ money properly, to keep the economy out of trouble and to provide jobs, rising living standards and decent public services. That is what is really meant by the “aspiration” agenda, and there is nothing wrong with it. And a decade and more of New Labour government proved that it is possible to marry economic efficiency and social justice – the very agenda and political middle ground the Tories are not attempting to appropriate.
It is one of the many tragedies of Mr Blair’s time in office that his substantial achievements at home have been overshadowed by his disastrous war in Iraq. His enemies on the left – who significantly outnumber his admirers on the right – successfully attached the Iraq debacle first to the UN-backed war in Afghanistan and then extended the notion to his domestic policies, accusing him of “privatising” the NHS. He made his mistakes, though he seems not to acknowledge the more serious ones, but he also made Labour electable for the first time in a quarter-century, and won a hat-trick of victories. For that alone he earned his right to be listened to.Reuse content